How Las Vegas evolved from Sin City to Super Bowl host

Looking out at Las Vegas on a ferris wheel ride with Mr. Vegas himself, Wayne Newton, it’s clear just how much this city has changed since he came to town back in 1959.

“There were seven hotels on the strip,” said Newton. “And that’s what Vegas was then.”

Newton said “there’s no question” that Las Vegas has matured over the years, and now is treated like a real American city in a way that it wasn’t always in people’s minds.

With that maturity comes something that was once unthinkable. When the Kansas City Chiefs and the San Francisco 49ers face off at Super Bowl LVIII on Sunday, Feb. 11, they will compete for football’s highest honor at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas. It was unthinkable because, for many years, professional sports teams, including the NFL, refused to go anywhere near Las Vegas, thanks to its seedy reputation.

Steve Hill heads up the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority — one of the organizations that lobbied for years to get professional sports teams to reconsider their idea of Sin City. Hill said that his family was “concerned” when he moved to Las Vegas in the ’80s.

“I mean, I think legitimately concerned,” he said, adding that the opportunity for Las Vegas to host the Super Bowl still came as a surprise and seemed “completely out of the question” until now.

There was a long-held fear that the bright lights of Vegas might remind fans of one of sports’ darkest days, when gamblers fixed the 1919 World Series. But that concern has diminished, said Brett Abarbanel, the executive director of the international gaming institute at UNLV.

“For a long time, gambling and Las Vegas by extension was viewed as kind of this unacceptable, maybe unethical, inappropriate … seedy and sometimes even evil thing to do,” Abarbanel said. “There’s much more acceptance of gambling these days.”

Las Vegas will host the Super Bowl for the first on Sunday, Feb. 11.

CBS News

Ironically, said Arbarbanal, some of that acceptance might be thanks to a 2018 Supreme Court decision that initially looked like bad news for Nevada. The court overturned something called PAPSA, the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, and since then, more than 30 states have legalized sports betting.

In other words, the fact that anyone anywhere pretty much now in America can place a sports bet on their phone has not actually hurt the economy in Las Vegas, Arbarbanal explained. Instead, sports betting and the Vegas economy have “grown alongside one another,” he said.

Because, the theory goes, the more familiar people are with gambling on sports, the less worried they might be about pro sports teams being based in Las Vegas, like the Raiders, the Golden Knights of hockey and the Aces of the WNBA. Soon, the legendary Tropicana Hotel — the place where James Bond stayed — will be demolished to make way for a new stadium for the Oakland A’s of Major League Baseball.

It’s a big sports turnaround for a city that has some humble beginnings.

Brian “Paco” Alvarez is an anthropologist, tour guide and lifelong resident of Las Vegas, who took “Sunday Morning” to a part of the city where it actually began. Where the Union Hotel now stands was once a train depot where the land auction that founded Las Vegas took place in 1905.

Alvarez said there’s a practical reason his town has been all-in on gambling and entertainment throughout its history.

“Las Vegas is a city that is a survivor. It’s a city that has to reinvent itself to survive. You know, we don’t have a lot of industry here,” he said, while on a driving tour of his hometown. “We don’t have a lot of water, so we realized that the formula of having gaming worked for us.”

Nevada legalized gambling in the 1930s, but it was mobsters like Bugsy Siegel and Mo Dalitz who saw its potential, creating the Las Vegas Strip. With that danger in its DNA, the city leaned in hard to the “Sin” part of Sin City over the years.

These days though, Vegas is betting that the once in a lifetime experience of the town will be a key in attracting the TikTok generation, like Formula One racing right on the Strip, Adele up-close and personal at Caesar’s Palace, or U2 at the Sphere, a $2.3 billion concert venue that looks like it could be seen from space.

“It’s so over the top that even we locals can’t stop looking at it,” said Alvarez. “I’ll drive by it and it always makes … it gives me a smile because a lot of times, it’s a giant emoji smiling at me.”

Another reason Las Vegas is smiling? The city is back. Forty million people visited last year, nearly topping its pre-COVID record. More than 300,000 are expected in town this week alone – and Newton would like to say “thank you.”

“The truth of the matter is to call it Sin City is a misnomer because there’s nothing that goes on here that doesn’t go on in every city, pretty much in the world,” Newton said.

Come next weekend, Las Vegas’ biggest showman will be watching the big game, along with a billion or so other people all over the world, as the city he made his home 65 years ago plays host to what might be its biggest show yet.

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